Countdown. Good, but where’s the mongrel?

Countdown needed to come out fighting. The limp written statement from the Australian owned supermarket giant in response to Labour MP Shane Jones’ stinging claims, made under Parliamentary Privilege, was never going to cut it. So finally this afternoon they did what they should have been doing from the first moments this storm hit them. They fronted up.

Mike Hosking’s interview with Countdown NZ managing director Dave Chambers, aired this evening, moved Seven Sharp back into the watchable current affairs zone in a single leap. Dispassionate yet challenging. Impartial yet sceptical. It was a real hoorah moment for the new-look format and a vindication, if one were needed, of the changes to the way the show is fronted.

Campbell Live also hit the spot in the way they treated the issue, I felt.

I’ve blogged before about how I’ll think twice about putting a client on these shows. But if ever there was a moment for an organisation to front up and put its best foot forward, this was it.

Dave Chambers came across really well, I felt. He’s the type of guy we can all identify with. He said all the right things about being prepared to address any concerns suppliers might have directly with them. He spoke about being concerned that Countdown’s relationship with some suppliers was obviously not as good as he had thought it was. And he argued his case well – as far as it went.

They really needed to combine that niceness with some good old killer instinct to demolish the credibility of Shane Jones’ case against them.

And there’s the rub. His argument could have, and should have, gone so much further. Although they fronted up, I felt Countdown fell well short of what was needed to smooth over the turbulent wake of Shane Jones’ election year-fuelled gunboat.

They were trying to be too nice. They really needed to combine that niceness with some good old killer instinct and actually demolish the credibility of Shane Jones’ case against them.

The nice, bewildered ‘little boy lost’ routine fell way short of convincing, in my view. Anyone who’s had even a whiff of experience in the grocery sector knows of the immense power wielded by the supermarkets and the ferocity with which they hammer into supplier margins. So Dave Chambers’ insistence that he has no idea where this nasty criticism came from all of a sudden did seem to me to be slightly hollow.

So the bullshitometer in our home started beeping softly and the credibility of the Countdown position was significantly undermined.

I was hanging out for Chambers to remind me that this is an election year and that Shane Jones has a mandate to secure.

I was longing for a list of suppliers who had contacted Chambers today to offer support.

I was frustrated that he didn’t draw attention to the confusing apparent contradiction between what Katherine Rich of the Food and Grocery Council said yesterday, and what her chairman Pierre van Heerden said today.

I was disappointed not to hear a more vigorous reminder that Kiwis have been calling for cheaper supermarket prices and that squeezing suppliers is a necessary part of the response to this. (To be fair, this message was in there but it certainly wasn’t front and centre).

Credibility is king in the court of public opinion. In these cases, with such strong consumer interest and such an emotive battleground, it’s not enough to secure your own credibility. You really need to kill off the other guy’s. Nicely and politely – you don’t want to prove that you’re the bully he says you are. But quickly and loudly before he gets too many hits in.

I’ve written before about tofu PR – that tasteless, characterless, path-of-least-resistance school of PR that pervades so much of today’s corporate culture. I’m really hoping Countdown’s better than that.

The Fat Lady hasn’t even begun to think about singing about this issue yet. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how it plays out.

[UPDATE: February 22 – Rodney Hide nails it here].

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